The media blitz is just beginning as the NASCAR season gets underway with cars on the track in Daytona this weekend. But there has already been a bit of controversy brewing between track promoters and NASCAR’s most popular driver.
In "Behind the Scenes with Dale Earnhardt Jr.", Bruce Martin reports that Junior had a few choice words for track promoters. Gathering with media in a recent roundtable, the promoters, particularly SMI track promoters, said that they would like to see drivers be more accessible in order to attract more fans and fill the seats at their race tracks.
Earnhardt fired back, saying, "The race track owners want drivers to do more? Yeah, right. They need to go back to work," he said. "They forgot what it's like to sell tickets.”
Junior continued, "They can dump that responsibility on drivers all they want, but the responsibility really lies in their hands to sell race tickets, and they have to get creative in doing it. We already do a lot. We do (bleeping) plenty and they are full of (bleep)."
So, who is right in this argument? Should drivers be more accessible, especially in these tough economic times to give fans that extra incentive to come to the track and spend their hard-earned money?
Or are Dale Junior and some of the drivers, such as Jeff Gordon who also chimed in with his agreement on this issue, right in feeling that they already give so much to fans at the track and just cannot be expected to do any more?
Let's face it. Although fans gripe and complain, NASCAR is truly one of the most accessible sports around.
Other sports fans are absolutely unable to go into the locker room and just hang out with a football or baseball team as they prepare for a game. But NASCAR fans get to experience that at whatever race through pit passes or other special track promotions.
Yet on every NASCAR talk show, fans will call in to complain about driver inaccessibility. One woman called in recently to share her story of going to the Texas Motor Speedway for four years in a row, purchasing pit passes, and never getting one single driver's autograph or picture.
She went on to complain that even when she purchased a special pass to go on pit road for a picture session, that the drivers deliberately stood on the other side of their cars. According to her, this made it impossible to get a decent shot of any of them.
Believe me, as NASCAR fans, I'm sure we all have our own horror stories of driver inaccessibility. In fact, I've experienced my own, even with my favorite driver, Jeff Gordon.
At the last race in Pocono, I was very fortunate to have garage passes. I had promised a friend, another JG fan who had been quite ill, that I would use this opportunity to get him an autograph of our favorite driver.
So, I stood patiently outside of the 24 hauler, waiting for a chance to catch Jeff as he went back and forth for practice. While others mobbed him, I hung back just hoping for an unobtrusive way to get his coveted signature for my friend.
After a full practice session of being totally unsuccessful, I must admit I did start to get a little desperate. After the last session, I followed him straight to the hauler door before he, somewhat begrudgingly, turned around and signed the picture for my friend.
But as much as I wanted that autograph, I realized that there were hundreds, no thousands, of other fans who wanted the exact same thing. This is a real dilemma particularly for the most popular drivers, who try to balance being accessible with being totally besieged.
At Dover one year, I was standing on pit road for the qualifying session. I was minding my own business when, bam, I got totally plowed into from behind.
When I turned around and picked myself up, I realized it was Dale Junior that had run smack dab into me. "I'm so sorry, ma'am," he said, "but I'm just trying to get to my car to qualify."
And as I turned around to see the mob of fans flocking toward him, I realized that he was indeed just a driver trying to qualify his car to put it into the show for the weekend. For drivers like Junior, the accessibility balancing act must be an incredibly difficult challenge.
Yet, on the flip side in my years as a NASCAR fan, I have also seen amazing examples of driver accessibility that have taken my breath away.
No matter how popular the driver and how big the crowd, there is not a one of them that will not stop and sign an autograph or shake the hand of a disabled or challenged child or adult.
I've seen Kasey Kahne stand for hours (yes, hours) at Pocono Raceway in the over 100-degree sun, signing autographs for each and every fan. He turned away no one, as fans just kept stepping up in waves.
At the Monster Mile a few years ago, my husband and I happened to be walking out the track gates when Robby Gordon came in, off to do the television show, Trackside. He was on the phone at the time so we just waved and said, "Hey Robby."
He quickly said "got to go," hung up his cell phone and greeted us warmly. We chatted for a few minutes and he volunteered to do some autographs for us. It was an amazing experience at the track and one that this fan will always treasure.
So, is Dale Junior right? Are NASCAR drivers as accessible as they can be?
Or, as the track promoters argue, should the drivers do even more to accommodate the fans, especially in these very tough economic times?
This is a debate that undoubtedly will rage on. And it will take on a life of its own if more seats at the track remain unfilled during this upcoming 2009 season.